02 November 2014

The Women of Mycenaean Pylos and Knossos (Part III)

(continuing our review of Barbara Olsen's Women in Mycenaean Greece.  Part I click here; Part II here)

The Great Minoan Tradition

During the period that archaeologists call Late Minoan I (ca. 1600-1450 BCE), Crete was at the height of its glory and riches.  The island  was split into at least four regional powers, each ruled from one of the main palaces: Khania in the west, Phaistos/Ayia Triada in the south, Zakro in the east and -- richest of all --  Knossos in the north.*  Despite the damage and shock caused earlier by the volcanic eruption at nearby Santorini, Crete was still peaceful and  prosperous, continuing to trade all over the Aegean and farther afield, with Egypt, Syria, and the Levant.  Palace scribes were keeping their typically Minoan, slightly messy records written on clay tablets in the Linear A script (to this day, undeciphered).  Traditional, distinctively Minoan styles of art and architecture were blossoming; religion and social organization seemed unchanged.

The women of Minoan Crete were always held in high regard -- though it's a mistake to think they ruled the roost.  Very many images clearly show that they held positions of great honour ... and they could appear quite comfortably together with men.**  In matters of ritual and cult, women were probably the supreme gender.  Yet it must be admitted that their public appearances -- as preserved in art -- were apparently limited to religious (and related athletic) activities.

Aristocrats -- whether male or female is unknown -- were busy sending messages from one end of the island to another, using exquisite Minoan gold rings to seal their missives.  Large gold rings -- especially those showing the bull-leapers of Knossos -- were surely used by high officials of the ruling and religious elite.  And someone at Knossos, perhaps of subversive temperament, was exporting such rings to the Mycenaean mainland where many are found in elite burials.

True, there were some clouds on the horizonPossibly, the rulers of Knossos had got too close to the Mycenaean powers.

Whatever the proximate cause, this attractive Minoan world came crashing down in a few short years around 1450 BCE -- when palaces, towns, and settlements across the island were destroyed in a rage of violence.  The perpetrators were almost certainly Mycenaean invaders from the Greek mainland.  When the fires stopped burning, there was only one palace left: Knossos.  And the language spoken in its halls was no longer Minoan but Mycenaean Greek.  Knossian bureaucrats now wrote in Linear B, and the administrative set-up of the economy was remarkably close in all its outward manifestations to that of Pylos.***
Yet the Mycenaean-administered palatial state of Knossos is an entity unparalleled on the Mycenaean mainland.  At Mycenaean Knossos, we encounter not a state like Pylos, where an ethnic Mycenaean population is governed by a Mycenaean administration, but rather a hybrid society of both ethnic Minoans and ethnic Mycenaeans under the authority of a Mycenaean administration.
The Aftermath of Conquest

The Linear B records that remain date from about 100 years after the conquest.  We read of men with  Minoan names who are lower in status (for example, many shepherds) than men with Greek names who occupy most of the warrior and official ranks.  That's hardly surprising: to the victor go the spoils.

But what was it like for the women of Crete?  What happened to their status and rights when the Mycenaeans -- whose women had relatively low status (Part II) -- came to rule over a Minoan society which had accorded women a higher social status? 

To answer this question, Prof. Barbara Olsen looked closely at the gender patterns to be teased out of the written records of Knossos.  Were Minoan gender roles and practices assimilated into Mycenaean ones?  Or were there important differences that might argue for the continuation of at least some aspects of a freer, more Minoan approach to women's rights?  Her findings form the third part of our review of her new book, The Women of Mycenaean Pylos and Knossos.

The Women of Knossos

Detail of KN Ap 639 listing women workers and their children
At least 1200 women identified by the ideogram 'Woman' appear in workgroups at Knossos.  In most cases, these lists are very similar to those recording groups of low-status and slave women at Pylos.  However, the women identified by this ideogram are often also listed by name -- which never happens at Pylos.  For example, the 22 women recorded on tablet KN Ap 639 (note the ideogram, generally the first sign on each line) probably worked in the textile industry, though their exact tasks elude us.  Some bear the name of their home towns (e.g. Phaistia, "she of Phaistos"), which suggests their servile status.  Most personal names are Minoan in origin but five are certainly Greek (e.g. Philagra and another 'Rosie').  One is named ke-ra-me-ja -- from which comes our word for 'ceramics'; the lady is a potter or from a potter's family.  Since it is likely that all 22 women are slaves, such Greek names might have been given them by a Greek master who couldn't pronounce their own funny Minoan names -- a common phenomenon in slave cultures.

From Rags to Rags

More than a thousand such low-status women worked in the Knossos textile industry.  However, the women were not concentrated in and around the palace as at Pylos, but laboured in the many towns and villages of central Crete under the control of their Mycenaean overlords.  The cloth industry was far and away the most important business organized by the palace.  The sheer size of the industry is staggering: over 100,000 sheep, along with their shepherds and shearers (male, mostly Minoan names) are tracked in obsessive detail from the grazing lands to the allocation of their wool, and on through the setting of cloth production targets until the final delivery of the many sorts of finished cloth.  All the work of producing the cloth was assigned to women.

While some of these women were certainly slaves, not all of them were.  Rather, the system made use of obligatory corvée labourGroups of local women were set specific production targets for different kinds of cloth.  The system was forced, of course, but though labouring for the palace, they remained in their local villages.  While pretty gruelling, this was not slavery.  When they had finished their assigned tasks -- varying from an estimated three to six months of work annually -- they were presumably free for the rest of the year.  This allowed the women to sustain themselves and their families at home.

At Knossos itself, there is no sign of the full-time year-round menial females who did the dirty work at the palace of Pylos.  Slaves who performed the unenviable endless tasks for the palatial elite -- maintaining the water supply, personal attendance, and food-processing -- must have been, in some sense, a private concern. 

At the other end of the social scale are the priestesses.  Given their   prominence in art, documentation of the women who officiated in cult is surprisingly sparse.  A 'priestess of the wind' is mentioned three times: one was at Knossos(?), another at Utanos, and a third at Amnisos. Each received a monthly distribution of olive oil as did a number of other cult officials and divinities alike.  That oil was probably intended for cult purposes rather than for their personal use.  Then, there are the enigmatic groups of ki-ri-te-wi-ja women at Knossos, Amnisos, and Phaistos.  These are low-ranking religious personnel, but above the level of slaves and servants.  Trying to guess their function from their name gives bizarre results.  It could mean 'barley-women' -- perhaps those who served an otherwise unknown 'deity of barley', or women who received or distributed that rather low-grade grain.  Other interpretations are more hopeful (if no more certain), the name perhaps derived from 'chosen' or 'annointed ones'.  Whatever their cult function, each group received a very large monthly ration of wheat -- enough to have fed 500 women of a  workgroup for a month. 

There is no mention of land or other goods being assigned to priestesses or the ki-ri-te-wi-ja women.

In fact there is little indication of the priestesses having a broader economic role in the Knossian state; and no personnel, land, or shrine property are associated with female cult officials.... In contrast to Pylos, where we see nearly all of the property attributed to women in the hands of cult officials, the majority of the property associated with women at Knossos is linked with low- to middle-status women.

She Stoops to Conquer

A key difference with Pylos is that some women at Knossos who are not connected with cult exerted control over textiles, foodstuffs such as wheat and oil (sometimes in very large quantities), wool, linen, and, above all, land -- in the form of orchards. We'll go back to the land in a moment but, first, let's have a look at a woman with the unlikely name of po-po

Po-po appears in a supervisory capacity with control over fairly large quantities of raw materials for cloth-making in three tablets (twice linen, once wool).  Her name appears again on two more fragmentary tablets and then on a tablet (Kn L 513) that records her obligation to send a sizeable amount of textiles to the palace: the phrasing indicates that po-po is the person in charge and seems to confirm that she is a workshop supervisor.  The same may be true of other women listed on the textile tablets who have some stated responsibility for the collection or allocation of cloth.  A number of men appear on some of the same tablets with exactly the same obligations as the women: there is no obvious distinction and their obligations are described in the same way. 

Unfortunately, Knossos lacks the careful, detailed records of land-tenure as kept by the scribes of Pylos. We therefore know next to nothing about the land-owning system, and who owned what. Just one series survives: 20 tablets record the ownership or stewardship of groves of fruit-trees. This is enough to show us, however, that men and women held these orchards in a completely analogous fashion.  The phrasing is the same: "[The man] Eriklewes holds an orchard plot".  "[The woman] Perijeja holds an orchard plot".  In another case, a man and a woman are said to have the same kinds of orchards but her holding is five times the size of his.  In short, though the sample is small, the few texts from Knossos look remarkably egalitarian -- with men and women incorporated into the land-holding system in exactly the same way.  

So, overall, Prof. Olsen's analysis strongly suggests that the gender organization of Mycenaean Knossos was not the same as that of Mycenaean Pylos. 

Various women were also attested as having massive amounts of food-stuffs ...raw and finished textile products, and luxury goods .... These women were also held personally accountable for missing property -- further underscoring the notion that the property in question was considered that of these women rather than of their husbands, fathers, or other male relations.  Importantly, none of these property holders were attested to in any context that might suggest they held a religious affiliation, nor were they listed as wives of ranking men.


Nonetheless, they were decidedly the lesser sex.

The property holdings of Knossian women were significantly limited in both size and scope compared to those of men.  Knossian men of all social rankings controlled a wide range of commodities, most of which never appear with a woman's name attached.  On the contrary, men had access to every commodity that women had and, then too, lots more.  The palace never seemed to give women exotic goods such as spices or ointments, objects made of horn or ivory,  metals or metal vases, nor (obviously) weapons, horses, armour or chariots -- the 'must have' status symbols of the ruling elite.  In short, men controlled far more property than women.

Still, Knossian women were better off than their Pylian sisters.

First of all, it is likely that the women in the textile workgroups -- except for those specifically identified as slaves -- were commandeered for only part of the year as corvée labour.  If so, they were in some senses 'free' and their social standing would have been significantly higher than the slaves of the Pylos groups.  Similarly, there seems to have been legal space for some women to run workshops and take responsibility for their own economic identity.

At Pylos, the only women who controlled significant property belonged to the ranks of priestesses, the only institution that elevated  a few women to an exceptional status.   Even so, they did not achieve parity with men since they did not own the land but held it on lease.  In contrast, Knossian women who had no apparent religious affiliation owned their own land, and the palace recorded their holdings in exactly the same way as for male land holders. It would seem that this was the expected norm 

Quite simply, even a century after the conquest of Crete, mainland institutions do not appear to be governing women's role in the economy.  Differences in gender practices between the states of Pylos and Knossos imply that cultural assimilation was partial and far from completeSo, where did these differences come from?
I suggest that these differences may likely be holdovers from an earlier period -- for would Mycenaean Greeks introduce gender practices not their own -- and that the most likely source of those holdovers would be Neopalatial Minoan Crete, where women have long  been suspected of enjoying a more egalitarian  status than other women....
Having finished this richly rewarding book, I can only say to Dr Olsen: "Q.E. (Definitely) D".

Women in Mycenaean Greece

The Linear B Tablets from Pylos and Knossos

By Barbara A. Olsen

Routledge – 2014 – 380 pages

Hardback: $140.00
ISBN: 978-0-415-72515-6

*  Olsen references five or more Minoan palatial states, including Malia and Galatas but excluding Khania.  However, there are no signs that those two palaces (unlike Khania) had any written archives in this period, surely a requirement for the administration of a 'state'.   

** Olsen stresses the gender segregation of the Linear B tablets on which men and women are usually divided into male- and female-only tablets.  While gender isolation extends to iconography at Pylos, it certainly less marked on Crete where both sexes are frequently pictured together in cult scenes on gold rings and frescoes, as well as on some major frescoes from the Mycenaean period -- for example, the Procession fresco, the Campstool fresco, and bull-leaping frescoes from Knossos; also at Ayia Triada (cf.: the frescoes from Casa VAP [above] and the famous painted scenes on the Ayia Triada sarcophagus).

*** Interpreting the Linear B tablets from Knossos is even more challenging than at Pylos.  Scribes at Pylos were well-organized: ca. 1100 tablets were filed by subject matter in a single archive inside the palace. Consequently, 50% of those documents were complete and preserved, on average, 25 signs per tablet.  At  Knossos, on the other hand, ca. 3400 tablets were found higgledy-piggledy in a dozen or more parts of the palace, often fallen from upper storeys, and thus rarely intact: 75% of the documents are fragmentary, and the average number of signs per tablet is only 7.7.  Moreover, the broken tablets are frequently missing headings and ideograms. 

Sources:  Besides the book under review, I have made use of L. Baumbach, 'The Personal Names on Knossos Ap Tablets', in (A.M. Etter, ed) O-o-pe-ro-si , Berlin (1986) 273-278; R. Palmer, 'Wheat and Barley in Mycenaean Society', in (J.-P. Olivier, ed) Mykenaika, BCH Suppl. XXV (1992)


Top left: 'Dancing Lady 'from the Queen's Megaron, Knossos.  Photo credit: Oxford University Fine Arts

2nd left: Gold ring from Nemea, CMS V Suppl. IB 113.  Photo credit: CMS Arachne

3rd left: Gold ring from Arkhanes-Phourni.  Photo credit: OU Fine Arts [Note: the date given for the ring on this site is far too early; it should be LM I) 

4th left: Female taureador (her skin is white, following the Minoan convention [derived from the Egyptian] of picturing females as white, men as red) dressed in male athletic garb: Bull-leaping panel from Court of the Stone Spout, Knossos.  Photo credit: Zenobia (in the Heraklion Museum)

5th left: Detail from a Linear B tablet Ap 639 from Knossos recording women textile workers and their children, around 1375-1350 BC.  Photo credit: Ashmolean Museum

Centre: Reconstruction of the fresco panel from Casa VAP,  LM III Ayia Triada (Heraklion Museum).  Photo credit: Dr Santo Privitera, to whom I am most grateful for the picture. 

Lower left: Detail from Ayia Triada sarcophagus.  Photo credit: OU Fine Arts [Note: the date given for the sarcophagus on this site is too early] 

Bottom left: Bronze statuette of female worshipper, c. 1600-1500 BC, Middle Minoan III-Late Minoan I Crete.  Cleveland Museum of Art.  Photo credit: Boundless blog


  1. Many thanks for fascinating series of posts. One question: in this part of the world up to a generation or so ago, it would be quite usual to refer to someone respectfully by their home town or farm eg Tom Dafen, Kate Penpompren. No suggestion of servile status there. Were these things different in Mycenaean Crete?

  2. That's a good point, Gav. To some extent, slavery is an assumption based on the contrast with those who are named (and Pylian practice where groups of women known only by their ethnic identity are noted as 'slaves'). I think the main distinction is that Tom Dafen and Kate Penpompren are *also* Tom and Kate, not just 'a man of Dafen' or 'woman of Penpompren'; that is, they are individuals. Judith

  3. That makes sense. Thanks again.


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